My Green Manifesto

On July 4th, four years ago, I took a wild canoe trip down the Charles River with Dan Driscoll, a senior environmental planner for the state and a man who has made it his mission to green the banks of the Charles over the course of the last two decades. My Green Manifesto is the story of that exhilarating journey, but it is also a lot more: a bracing call for a new environmentalism, an environmentalism that leaves behind its old stuffy, superior ways and embraces the virtues of humor, common sense, and a new, living language. The book suggests that rather than bemoan the fact that the world is doomed, we would do better to fight like hell for our neighborhoods. My Green Manifesto is a celebration of the raw pleasure that people can take from wildness, even from a limited wild like the once famously-dirty Charles. It is both a cry for renewed contact and a love song to what is left. And, finally, the book is an attempt to break nature writing out of its eco-ghetto, and into the larger world.      

About me

I am the author of eight books, including Return of the Osprey, which the Boston Globe called “a classic of American Nature writing” and chose as one of its top ten books of the year.  I have published essays in the New York Times Magazine, the Boston Globe Ideas page, and have won the John Burroughs Award for Best Nature Essay of 2006, a Pushcart Prize, and inclusion in Best Nonrequired Reading.  In 2003 I taught environmental writing at Harvard and am now an Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where I founded the award-winning literary journal, Ecotone.  I wrote My Green Manifesto in part because I was sick of the same old enviro books with the same sort of language. I was sick of it in my own writing too.  I wanted to be more honest, raw and funny.

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I have given hundreds of readings, keynote addresses and talks around the country.  Here’s a sample of one of my recent talks.

What others are saying about My Green Manifesto

"Gessner has chopped down the strangling beanstalk of environmentalism, and has merrily, adroitly, hungrily planted something new in its place. His book comes just in time. After talking with environmental experts and reading the direst of scientific journal articles, I was starting to feel the mind-numbing grip of paralysis, which in the animal world is the last strategy you ever want to employ. Before putting a bullet through your head for the plight of Mother Earth read this book. Gessner is not saying anybody is off the hook, but he offers a more effective way of relating to nature, no, in fact, of being nature."

- Craig Childs, Author of The Secret Life of Water and other books

“David Gessner is a major American writer in possession of the most hard-headed, pragmatic, passionate, urgently personal, and eloquent style of thinking and writing on what it means to be a human on Earth today.”  

- Brad Watson National Book award Finalist and Author of Last Days of the Dogmen

“In My Green Manifesto, David Gessner makes a witty, self-deprecating, irreverant but impassioned plea for recognizing the extraordinary in the ordinary--the limited wilderness we can find by going out our own back doors.  In the process, he re-invents the environmental manifesto for people who hate the word environmental as much as they hate the word manifesto.  Make no mistake, Gessner can write about the color of a blue heron or the athleticism of ospreys with the best of them.  But if you're looking for global plans for greentopia or mystical rhapsodies to Mother Earth, go elsewhere.  Gessner is convinced that re-connecting ourselves with nature doesn't start with finger-wagging or church-going; it starts with fun.  He has written a manifesto more joy than jeremiad.”

- Ginger Strand, Author of Inventing Niagara

“Gessner has positioned himself as a sort of Woody Allen of environmental writers…..Like Emerson, who observed that the ‘dead forms’ of institutional practice must be revivified through radical new acts of intellectual, aesthetic and moral imagination, Gessner rails against the narrowness of environmental literature to open the field to new (if less earnest) approaches.”

- Michael Branch, eco-critic

Excerpts from My Green Manifesto

We are paddling our rock-battered canoe down a particularly stunning section of the river, a twisting stretch called Rocky Narrows, named for its steep granite walls and overhanging trees, as we travel toward the hidden city at river's end. Over the past hours we have heard coyotes howl and watched deer wade, observed a beautiful sharp-shinned hawk swooping up into the canopy, delighted in swallows cutting above the water in front of us and kingfishers ratcheting past, and toasted with beers to congratulate ourselves after an exhilarating ride through the rapids. If I squint I can imagine myself on a great and wild river, the Amazon or Congo or at least the Colorado, and can imagine the man behind me, who steers the canoe, as an epic adventurer--Teddy Roosevelt, say--hurtling down the River of Doubt.


The truth is slightly less glamorous. This isn't the Amazon but the Charles--a name that conjures up images less adventurous and wild than fancy and effete, not to mention domesticated and decidedly English--and the hidden city that lies in front of us is known, in the native tongue, as Bah-ston. What's more, the dwellings we will soon pass will be not primitive huts but Super Stop & Shops, and the Homo sapiens we'll encounter downriver will be not headhunters but Harvard students, and, if I am perfectly honest, the fearless leader in the stern isn't Teddy R. but a state worker named Dan Driscoll, with whom I once played some Ultimate Frisbee and to whom we referred, in those days, as Danimal.


We like to strip down myths, we modern folk, and it's easy enough, I suppose, to quickly strip our journey of all its mythic qualities: to see it as a pretty modest trip on a small river with a modest enough guy. But if our adventure has not exactly been a life-or-death journey into a vast, untamed wilderness, the truth is I have been consistently surprised over the last few days, not just by the wildness of the river but by Driscoll himself. The man's considerable energy, which I had previously witnessed only when he chased down Frisbees like a border collie, is equally apparent when he talks about his efforts to revitalize the river. 


"I started back around 1990 when I was working as a planner for the state [of Massachusetts]," he tells me as we paddle. "Someone in the office said, 'Why don't you take a look at the Upper Charles?' I think they were just trying to give the new kid something to do. Little did they know. I looked over the maps and saw possibilities. I began to plan and scheme. When I first started talking about connecting the river paths, everyone looked at me like I was crazy. I said, 'Let's have these green paths that run through the urban areas. Let's reconnect people to nature.' Pretty soon I was known as this raging ecological planner. But the funny thing is, lo and behold, they eventually listened. Next thing I knew, I was the River Man."


What Dan Driscoll did over the next 17 years was this: he threw himself into reclaiming the junkyards and car parks and industrial wastelands that had sprung up along the Charles, shepherding in a green resurgence on the riverbanks by taking back land that belonged to the state but that had gradually been illegally encroached upon by businesses and residents. His improbable goal was to sell the idea of the Charles--so famously polluted that it had been the inspiration for the Standells' 1966 hit song, "Dirty Water"--as a nature preserve, while wrangling, talking, and negotiating land away from factory owners and homeowners, even arguing with a local godfather at one meeting. Dan's attempt to restore native plants and trees to the riverbanks and to create a green corridor through the heart of Boston and its suburbs has been a quixotic quest, no doubt about it. But in this age of environmental losses and hand-wringing, perhaps the oddest thing about it is this: it has been successful. welcomes thoughtful comments and the varied opinions of our readers. We are in no way obligated to post or allow comments that our moderators deem inappropriate. We reserve the right to delete comments we perceive as profane, vulgar, threatening, offensive, racially-biased, homophobic, slanderous, hateful or just plain rude. Commenters may not attack or insult other commenters, readers or writers. Commenters who persist in posting inappropriate comments will be banned from commenting on